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Water may be everywhere, availability below one percent

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Water table graphic 02

Replenishing ground water is more complicated than it may seem on a rainy day in the Ozarks

Every day, it seems, global water supply is becoming more of an issue. Sometimes there’s not enough, sometimes too much.

On a global scale, ocean levels are rising at an alarming rate. Entire coastal cities could one day be under water, while others throughout the American Southwest can’t get enough, cutting agriculture production at an alarming rate.

It’s a local issue as well for many communities, even for those of us living in the Ozarks who seem to always be in the midst of a deluge that sends us to higher ground. Joplin, Pittsburg (Kan.) and the communities around them are dealing with projected water shortages. As well, Springfield and many other cities are dealing with water lost through leaking and broken water mains, expensive to repair and even more so to replace.

Springfield residential use is down

And yet, residential water use in Springfield in 2013 was the lowest in 15 years. A five-year operating plan projects a continued a decrease in use per customer. Drought conditions in 2012 gave us an inkling of how fragile our ground water supply can be. Nationally in 2012, almost 60 percent of the continental U.S. was living through drought conditions; half of all counties were deemed to be disaster areas because of water shortages.

But it’s not just the supply of water, so what exactly will happen if we run out?­ We won’t ever run out of water, but we will face challenges of equitable distribution and availability of clean water. And pollution remains a threat for many of us in the Ozarks.

On a planet that is 70 percent water, fresh water makes up just three percent of the water supply. Much of it rest is tied up in ice, icebergs, glaciers, and snowcaps. Of all the rivers, streams, lakes, aquifers and groundwater necessary to sustain the 6.6 billion people on Earth, it turns out that less than one percent of the total water on the planet is readily available, according to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Each year, millions of people die from preventable diseases, having consumed drinking water from an unsanitary source.

As mentioned in Ozarks Living Magazine (October, 2014), more fresh water is consumed in power plants in the U.S. than for agriculture.  Generating electricity from coal, oil, gas, and nuclear consumes (and pollutes or evaporates) vast quantities of water. Even turning on a light switch uses water.

More for industry than agriculture

In 2005, electrical generation accounted for 41 percent of all fresh water used. Now one report predicts that if we don’t convert the majority of our electrical generation to low-water-use sources (solar and wind), our thirsty power system will suck us into an “insurmountable” water crisis in less than three decades.

Water is arguably humanity’s most vital natural resource. It sustains all other activities; it’s the essential basis of economies, societies and human life.­ And yet it seems so plentiful that we waste it, take it for granted, abuse it and make it downright dangerous to use or consume.

This week in Beijing, the Chinese government has essentially halted many industries from production to “clear the air” prior to a six-day conference as leaders from around the world meet for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), an economic development conference for countries bordering the Pacific Rim. To portray a picture-perfect backdrop, Beijing residents were “encouraged” to leave the city for a holiday, reducing deadly smog from traffic and utilities.

The current crisis results from a combination of factors, but one obvious consideration rises above all others: the global population boom. As populations grow, so do their demands for water. People must be fed, and agriculture must have water to grow crops and livestock. This puts a demand on naturally available water.

To secure a source of water for its people, a government may construct a dam, but dams have drawbacks as well. Due to their large surface area, they lose water to evaporation. Lakes collect natural salts found in fresh water, which build up over time, and cropland irrigated through a dam may become poisoned from salt concentrations. One such example is the Great Salt Lake in Utah, which ranges from 5 to 270 percent (50 to 270 parts per thousand). The average salinity of the worlds’s oceans is 3.5 percent (35 parts per thousand), compared to 33.7 percent in the Dead Sea). But there are many more unusable ground water sources, and strong evidence that our addition to oil and natural gas through tracking is making matters worse. About half the population in U.S., including Springfield, relies to some extent on groundwater, and still more use it in factories or farms for irrigation.

It doesn’t take long for the common water supply to become unsanitary in urban areas around the world, slowly choking aquatic life, forests and means of agricultural production to further reducing available food supply. The poorest residents often have no choice but to use their water without sanitation.

There is good news, at least in the U.S.

Data on U.S. water use compiled every five years by the U.S. Geological Survey, covering every state and every sector of the economy through 2010, show that U.S. water withdrawals across the board, are declining, not growing.

Traditional water planning and management assume inevitable, continuing, lockstep growth in demand for water as populations and economies expand. This has led to calls for continued expansion in traditional water infrastructure: dams, aqueducts, groundwater extraction, and long-distance water transfers.

In California, Orange County’s Groundwater Replenishment System produces over 70 million gallons of water every day. A 2012 report by the National Academy of Sciences (see report inGREENE Magazine, October 2012) estimates that if all the wastewater dumped into waterways or the ocean were recycled, the U.S. would increase its water supply by as much as 27 percent. Nationally, that amounts to 12 billion gallons.

New limits on water availability, the changing nature of our economy, new technologies that permit great improvements in efficiency and productivity of water use, and new management approaches have broken the two curves of water use and traditional population and economic growth apart.

Finally, the U.S. is demonstrating an ability, a willingness and the commitment to lead the world to conserve the water we have for of all things, a rainy day.

George Freeman is a veteran journalist and photographer. An award-winning writer, editor and columnist in Springfield, Mo., with more than 50 years experience. His preference is for positive and uplifting stories about people, places, traditions and trends that make the Ozarks one of the most livable regions anywhere. A member of the Garden Writers Association of America, he is a past-president of the Society of Professional Journalists of Southwest Missouri, the Kansas and Ohio AP societies; a board member of Friends of the Garden and a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield. In 1976, he traveled to India as a member of a Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange Team.

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